By Marilee Feldman, LCPC, CADC
Whether you’ve been in therapy or not, you’ve likely heard people talk about boundaries, which are critically important to our emotional well-being. Boundaries, it is frequently said, are like interpersonal fences, which provide us structure with which we define ourselves as a person and separate ourselves from other people.
A good boundary is like a dashed line that goes in a circle around ourselves. It has enough lines to give some structure and shape to it, but it also has some openings. It allows us to both know who we are and define ourselves, but also to be open and share ourselves with others. People with these kinds of boundaries tend to be confident and assertive, able to be both kind and protective of themselves. They are engaging and know how to get their needs met in an appropriately assertive way. They tend to form healthy intimate connections.
Some people have rigid boundaries, which are more like a concrete or stainless steel wall around them. You may know some of these people. The can be aloof or distant, and it is hard to tell how they feel about you or anything else for that matter. They are well defended against perceived threats or harm and don’t share much about themselves. But the problem is, it can get a little lonely in there for them. They tend to have difficulty with intimate connection.
Other people have what I call tattered fishnet boundaries. Their boundaries are loose and maybe are lying on the floor around them. There’s not much structure at all. In fact, it’s hard for the person to know where they end and another begins. These people thus tend to be really, really helpful to others. In fact, they are so helpful that they often lose themselves in the problems of other people and forget to take care of themselves. They do more and more for less and less. They tend to be passive and have a difficult time standing up for themselves by being assertive. They tend not to get their emotional needs met and can frequently feel overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed. They also have a hard time with true intimate connection, as they tend to know others, but not themselves. This is a really common boundary style for women, who are socialized to be nice and take care of the needs of others.
In a third category are what I call MBVs, or Major Boundary Violators. These people tend to be aggressive. While they know how to get their needs met, they do so by violating the boundaries of others. It is also hard for them to intimately connect with others or find satisfying relationships.
As you can see, boundaries have everything to do with whether or not we get our needs met in life, which has everything to do with whether we are happy or not. If we have closed off boundaries, we may have trouble with intimate relationships and feel lonely and isolated. If we have loose boundaries, we can feel anxious, resentful, and overwhelmed.
Boundaries also have huge implications in who we tend to associate with. Often times, the MBVs and tattered fishnet people find each other and get married because they perceive—quite accurately, actually—that the other person knows something that they don’t know about how to get their needs met. The problem with this is that over time, everyone tends to get pretty annoyed with the opposing nature of how the other one goes about doing things.
We learn about boundaries in our families growing up. If we had parents with closed off boundaries, who never shared their feelings and didn’t know much about validating ours, we can have trouble with boundaries ourselves. Similarly, if our boundaries were violated by an aggressive or dysfunctional parent, we can have our own boundary trouble. Interestingly, when boundaries are messed up in our childhood, they can be messed up in our adulthood in either direction. If, for example, dad was aggressive, we may develop tattered fishnet, absent boundaries or we can learn to shield ourselves in rigid, protective armor. It can go one way, or the other, but it will probably be unhealthy.
In counseling we learn about our boundaries, how they developed, and new boundary strategies so that we can learn how to set limits, figure out who we are, and learn to connect intimately with our partner and others. In so doing, we learn to be both true to ourselves and in harmony with others. Boundaries are so, so important.